books about famous people do the same thing, and she can try to explain why some biographies of George Washington note that he owned hundreds of slaves while others ignore the topic. Students can compare different biographies of the same person and rank their authenticity and believability, just as historians do.
Students can examine how conventions of historical writing have changed over time.
Wilton ( 1993)
Older students can even examine how the writing of historical biographies has changed over time. Most of us probably remember common biography series from our childhoods, and school libraries are still full of dog-eared copies of them. Students in the middle grades could compare those to more contemporary accounts and try to explain what biographical conventions have changed and which have remained the same, and explain how these changes relate to larger changes in society. Biographies from the 1950s, for example, rarely included any consideration of the failings of their subjects; their purpose was less to teach about real historical individuals than to provide role models who were paragons of patriotism and proper behavior. Many contemporary biographies, on the other hand, treat their subjects in a more balanced way; although they may still serve the purpose of providing role models, they are certainly very different models than those of previous generations.
Of course, most popular biographies focus on famous people, but much contemporary historical writing uses the lives of ordinary people to highlight significant aspects of historical continuity and change, and students can do the same. Although information on famous people is more readily available, with a little bit of work, teachers and their students can locate the primary sources necessary to construct biographies of everyday people, particularly from their own communities.
Ravitch & Finn ( 1987), Whittington ( 1991)
From fifth grade through college, history is one of the most securely established subjects in the curriculum, and most students in this country will take the same survey of American history at least three times--in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades, usually --and a fourth time if they go to college. Yet the amount of information they retain from these courses is shockingly small, as national tests and surveys have shown for more than 50 years. How can there be such a mismatch between what students study and what they learn? Tina suggests that part of the problem lies in the inappropriateness of the content of traditional school history. Even in schools in which teachers have great flexibility and control of their curriculum, there are enormous pressures to teach topics like "state history" in fourth grade and to do so in a way that mirrors the content of history textbooks or curriculum guidelines--having students learn when the state was admitted to the union, who the first governor was, and so on.
Brophy, VanSledright, & Bredin ( 1993)]
For history to be meaningful, students must understand the meaning of history as well as their place in history.
Academic researchers have suggested that teaching state history in fourth grade confuses children, but Tina's criticisms are stronger still: "It's ridiculous to go through a book reading about the founding of the state when students don't even have a sense of what history is, of what it means. Without knowing what history is all about, the rest of it will just go over their heads." We agree. At some point in their school career--hopefully in the primary grades, but later if necessary--students have to learn what history is all about, that they themselves have a history and that they are in history just as much as they are in the natural world.
Alexadner S. H. Mom Can't See Me. Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Bahr M. The Memory Box. Albert Whitman and Company, 1991.
Bonners S. The Wooden Doll. Lothrop, Lee, and Shephard, 1991.
Bunting E. Once upon a Time. Richard C. Owen, 1995.
Cha D. Dia's Story Cloth: The Hmong People's Journey of Freedom. Museum of Natural History, 1996.